Before I could put them in the trash bin, I heard knocking on my door. I closed the lighter, cleared my throat, and asked who it was. I could hear Mayu speaking to me through the door. She urged, “Can I come in? I want to talk. I feel a little better now.” My mind rushed with explanations. I could tell my sister I just happened to find the papers in my bag, but it all felt like a weight upon me. I put my lighter down on the table.
With a sigh, I unlocked my door and held it open for her. As she peered in my room, her first moments of confusion turned to horror as she smelled the faint traces of smoke and noticed piles of the papers by the window. As her lips trembled, I shook my head and told her, “I’m sorry. I read the information paper and I thought I could fix things by purifying the papers. I’m so sorry.”
Mayu whimpered and rushed over to the papers. She fumbled with them and finally managed the words, “How…could you? What did you do?” She seemed far past anger. She seemed terrified as I explained, “I burned one. One of mine.” Her eyes wide, she asked, “Which?” I described it to her, and her hand went up to her face. I felt sympathetic shock. She shook her head and asked, “Is there anything left of it?”
I showed her the soot. She leaned her head back. Her body went slack. I approached her slowly, barely able to look at her. I told her which were hers and which were mine. Slowly, she reached over and picked up hers. She clutched her eyes and said, “I feel strange…”
I leaned closer. “What do you mean?” She squeezed her sleeved images to her breast and softly said, “It’s weird. That image was of Neil, the man I love. But earlier, when I thought of him in the nurse’s office and hugged my bag, I remembered someone named Heather. We were best friends, as close as sisters. And I remembered dad being with me, like it is here, only you were my…anime friend. My good friend but not my boyfriend.”
I wanted to shake my head, but I listened. I breathed slowly. I could still feel a lingering trace of smoke. It gave a charge to the air like static. I admitted to her, “I felt…like I remembered something in class. I saw two girls and it made me think of two boys looking at girl-love comics. It was at an anime convention. I thought it was nonsense but…”
Mayu’s eyes lit up. “You can remember. Oh, you can remember. You don’t know how much that means to me. I felt so alone. I felt ready to give in. But we have to find a way out of this.” I wasn’t sure if it was all that, but it was a joy to see my sister’s eyes light up. I smiled at her, nodded, and asked, “So, what do we do?”
She sighed at the soot. “We don’t have the picture for the convention anymore…so I don’t know how we’re going to get back there…or even if that’s the original version of things. It feels like it…but I could be wrong. I wish I knew what to do.” She looked down at her drawings and said, “I could just look at these and see if I’m meant to be a sexy catboy or a kung-fu master…”
I said back, “Or I could look at the ones I have…left…and see if I’m supposed to be a schoolboy or a skintight scary guy.” Mayu raised her eyebrows and noted, “So, some of them change more with girl and boy versions. I wonder if that means something…” I brought the little information paper to Mayu’s side and we looked it over together. At a certain point, Mayu sighed and said, “Neil lied…I guess.”
I widened my eyes as Mayu explained, “I guess Neil…just before…didn’t want me to look at the papers. He told me that black-haired lady said the papers gave off fumes. It was why I…being stupid me…had to sniff them and show Neil…when Neil became you. It’s all my fault for being a stupid stupid idiot…”
I figured she meant Aioli. I rubbed Mayu's shoulder, but it didn’t seem to help. She looked away from the paper and said, “With this, I might guess too that burning them would help. I don’t think I’d want to try wetting them. We could be stuck with nothing.” I felt a little better with her words.
Mayu looked at her sleeved papers and said, “I could test one of these on myself. If you touch the paper with me then we’ll both remember that something changed. Then, we’ll know.” She touched the edge of one of them. I put my hand on her hand and said quickly, “Let me. I don’t want anything to accidentally happen to you.”
Mayu checked through mine and held both down. I made sure I was gripping the paper with her. I took a breath. I touched part of Mayu’s hand along with the paper. I still felt upset about what I had done, so my fingers retreated from her, but I still gripped tightly to the paper. With our hands never leaving the paper, Mayu turned over the first one.
It was the image of the skintight boy. He seemed so real. His image was incredible. I felt drawn in by him. And then, in another moment, the world shifted. I found myself still clutching the paper with Mayu. We had both changed and we were somewhere else. It wasn’t a place I liked very much.
It was dark and dank. It looked like a castle room with torch lighting and heavy, stone walls. I gasped and looked down. I was adorned in the form-fitting body-outfit. I was a lanky man who towered over Mayu. She wore a ragged, dirty dress with small tears in it. I tried not to dwell on the feeling of my body. All that could get through my mind were trembles and a sensation of wrongness. Mayu looked up at me in surprise and grimaced as she pleaded, “I hope you still remember me...”
I answered, “Mayu-chan…” Mayu breathed a sigh of relief. The sound of rough footsteps echoed from somewhere above. Mayu grimaced and said, “I really don’t like this world…” She still had the other paper in her hands. I touched the end of the paper but paused. My hand was covered in the material of the bodysuit. I tugged roughly on the sleeve as I heard footsteps slamming into the stone above us. It sounded like they were going to crush us. Mayu helped me tug until I managed to separate my hand from the sleeve.
Immediately, I seized the paper and begged Mayu, with my strange, manly voice, “Turn it!” In that same moment, a flood of helmeted soldiers with glowing, red eyes cascaded through a broken door. I tore my eyes from their horrific appearance and looked down at the familiar image of my body. I made sure my sister was also clutching tightly to the paper.
The shift seemed to take forever. I could sense the soldiers gaining on us, about to overtake us. I had no idea what would happen then. I tried not to think about it. I just opened my eyes and willed the image to take us back. In a breath, I turned to look up and found we were back in my room. Mayu panted and let the papers drop.
Cautiously, knowing what the information paper said about thirty-minutes but not fully trusting it, I looked down at the image of the body-suited man and the schoolboy. There seemed to be no power in them as I looked down. I looked up at Mayu and admitted, “I’m so sorry I didn’t believe you…” Mayu rested against my bed and said, “Thanks. But I still have no idea what to do. I can’t test mine like that. Unless…” She sat there a moment and thought.
I scooped up my papers and put them back into their sleeves. After a minute, I got up to check on mom and dad. They were laughing and watching a game show together. They asked me if Mayu was doing any better. I nodded and soon diverted the conversation to asking how they were. I listened carefully. I soon discovered that dad’s job was an anime director and not an insurance salesman. He was always good at art, but he got married to mom at an early age and decided to take a more ‘established’ career to provide for us
Other little details had also changed. I noticed that the décor of the house was a little different. We still went to the same girl’s school and the world I could see outside the window didn’t seem significantly altered. It was deep into evening. The world was reddish and the sun a dim sliver by the mountains.
As I looked out at it all, I felt as though I could understand what Mayu said when she noted it looked like anime. The hills did appear a little like they were painted. Expertly painted. The sky as well. And even, as I looked down, my own hands. The fingers had the special smoothness of art. It was a strange discovery, but I felt glad to be away from that frightful, stone dungeon.
I paused on my way back to my room. I looked over at mom and dad. I rushed over and gave them both big hugs. They were surprised and laughed a little. I didn’t know why I did it. I told them, “It just felt like the right time to do it.” I blushed when my mom asked me if I was doing anything wrong but I just smiled and reassured her.
Back in my room, I told Mayu about the small but significant differences I’d noticed. She was sitting in front of all four papers. She sighed and nodded. She tapped her papers and said, “We could just try new combos but yours won’t be active for thirty minutes. So, I’ll either be stuck as a neko version of me or a kung-fu fighter. Male or female. I’ve been wondering if we just need to run through all versions.”
It sounded like an interesting theory. She looked over her two papers and sighed to herself. “With the creepy world your paper came up with, I’m not sure what mine will draw. I hope kung-fu land and neko land are nice. And the flipside of your creepy world…if I remember…is sci-fi stuff.” Mayu set her papers down and leaned back. She noted, “It’d be kinda fun if not for losing memories and all the scary stuff…” I wasn’t sure if I’d call it fun but I gave my sister a little nod.
Mayu tapped her foot and mused, “So, I guess that leaves us with waiting for yours to work again. If we try schoolboy on you then we should be all through yours except for the last one.”
I thought about all the changes to the world since our trip through and back. I felt different too. This was real. Despite everything I believed, this world was not my home. Every moment I remembered growing up was not mine. Everything before lunchtime was either someone else’s or didn’t exist.
But, it was still all I knew, and it wasn’t as bad as that dark place. I gave my thoughts to Mayu. She rocked a little and said, “Yeah. I mean this place isn’t terrible. But I’m just a geeky American girl with a passing knowledge of Japanese from my grandmother. I’d sink like a brick in my classes.” I shook my head and told her I’d help her, no matter what. Mayu smiled and said, “The main reason I’d stay here is because of you.”
I smiled back and asked her softly, “Could you tell me more about Neil?” Mayu bent down and hugged her legs. “You still have his presence. It’s just your body and the situation that’s changed. Neil would do little things for me. Even in the piece of a reality I know a little about…he still bought me that silly, cute plushie…”
I chimed in without thinking about it, “Mascot character?” I wasn’t sure where that came from but Mayu nodded her head. She gave the name, but I didn’t know it or the show it was from. Mayu looked me in the eye and said, “I guess I’m saying I feel you’re still you, no matter what. I hope that means I’m still me…”
I rubbed Mayu’s shoulder and reassured her. She leaned her head against my bed and, after a moment, said, “I guess we try the schoolboy form. Then we at least know we’ve tried the schoolboy/girl ones. Plus, this way, you can kinda tell me what it’s like to be a boy before I give that a try. Even though you started as one.”
That notion unsettled me a little. I felt a little quiver in my legs. I didn’t know the first thing about how to be a boy. It sounded so strange. And yet, that’s how I was supposed to be. It was a lot to handle but I took a deep breath and told Mayu, “I’d be willing to give it a shot.”
We decided to do it before bed. I would’ve liked one last night asleep in my gender, but Mayu figured that this way we could undo it pretty quickly if something went wrong. After some discussion, we put the three other images in my bag. And we were left with around twenty minutes left for the recharge.
So we resorted to talking. Not about our situation but about sisterly stuff. Mayu leaned on my bed and asked different things about our lives. She asked about her favorite subject. Surely art class, same as mine. I showed her my sketches and her own. It was funny to see Mayu gawk at images I remembered her drawing herself.
We messed around with each other’s hair. Mayu told me about her favorite shows, anime programs I’d never dreamed about. She reenacted her favorite scenes from video games. I drank in her enthusiasm. I tried to hold her every word in my thoughts. By the time Mayu paused to look at the clock, hours had passed. I loved every moment.
I tried to accept the moment Mayu held the schoolboy art paper less like someone before a firing squad and more like the passage of one thing to another. I folded my legs. I held the other side of the paper with my sister. I looked down at the image of a boy with short, reddish hair. He had my eyes. And into his eyes my entire body seemed to fall.
When I rose again, I was someone else. Mayu looked at me and I looked back but we both noticed more had changed than just me. I looked around my room and saw what I hadn’t expected at all. Everything was an explosion of pink and frills and plushies. Lace and cuteness exploded from every inch of the room. Surely, this couldn’t be my room anymore…
Then, I eyed the beaded, glittery paper on the wall that said, “Fujiwara Kyoko”. Moving around, I could tell I was the boy from the image. I didn’t even need to look in the mirror. But the form that looked back at me was such a pretty boy that I could easily mistake him for a girl. My body felt even smoother than I usually kept it. There was an unsettling, bulgy feeling around my groin which I tried my best not to dwell on.
I trembled a little as I looked at the boy in the mirror. However, his svelte shape looked really nice. I blushed as I turned around. When I spoke to explain to Mayu the glittery writing, I paused. My voice didn’t sound any different than normal. It was soft and girlish.
Mayu frowned when I told her what it said, “That’s weird. Did it mess up turning you into a boy?” I walked over to my closet and slid it open. My eyes widened. I had a little makeup table with all sorts of products. And then dresses and outfits that outnumbered everything I’d ever bought as a girl. I felt a little underdressed in the jeans and t-shirt this universe had given me.
We found our parents still in front of the TV. They seemed largely unchanged. They didn’t seem bothered I was a boy, which unnerved me the most. Through a series of carefully-worded dumb questions, we learned my name was Kiyoshi. And I cross-dressed all the time for class because I went to the same girl’s school with Mayu.
I tried to not let my stunned feelings show to mom and dad. Mom gave us each a kiss on the forehead and told us to finish up whatever homework we had before bedtime. I had plenty and so did Mayu, but we just couldn’t get up the enthusiasm to do it. It seemed entirely pointless because the next alteration to the universe would probably just undo all our work.
I tried to get used to my new bedroom. I tried to get used to the way I walked. I tried. But it felt unnerving. I just wanted to be a girl again. I did give Mayu a little bit of information. She listened as intently as I did to her stories of games and animes. She eyed her papers but ultimately gave into exhaustion.
I knew that after my shower I’d be able to turn back into Kyoko…myself…but I thought about it a minute and told Mayu, “I think…I’d like to try being a boy for a while.” Despite the fact it unnerved me and felt strange, there was something about it that also made me feel curious.
I was intrigued by all the bath items that Kiyoshi had. He sure took care of himself. I settled into my bath with my head back and heart trying to relax. Having a flat chest was the nicest part. While Mayu envied my chest all those years in my head, I relished the idea of time away from it.
After I dressed and said goodnight to Mayu, mom tucked me in. I sighed at the darkened ceiling. I had no idea what tomorrow would bring. I lingered on my mother’s smiling face and I felt my tears tickle me with pain. No matter how much I tried to wipe them away, they kept coming back.
I held my father’s laugh and my mother’s smile in my thoughts. They kept cycling over and over and over and I just couldn’t stop the tears. I fidgeted and turned in bed till there were hardly any covers left on it. Eventually, the tiredness of everything overwhelmed me and I slept.